Holland’s second city is emerging from the capital’s shadow as a hot tourist ticket that’s only half an hour away by train. And with the world’s first urban surf centre set to make waves in the metropolis this summer, it’s worth the rail fare reports Belinda Beckett.

‘Amsterdam to party, Rotterdam to work’ is a popular saying in the Netherlands but it’s no longer a truism. A raft of futuristic projects is transforming Europe’s largest port city into an exciting urban getaway.

Rotterdam is not short on culture either. Along with centuries of maritime heritage, it has given the world abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, Renaissance humanist Erasmus and his namesake university.

The graceful Erasmus Bridge, opened by Queen Beatrix and nicknamed The Swan, set Rotterdam’s own renaissance on course in 1996. Over the last two decades, it has cut the red tape on a host of experimental new buildings that have swept away the down-at-heel docklands vibe.

De Rotterdam is a colossal vertical city for leisure, work and living arranged in three irregularly-stacked glass towers that look ready to topple over. Embedded in the complex are hip new bars and restaurants, offices and apartments and the nhow Hotel whose 278 designer rooms afford waterfront widescapes through floor-to-ceiling windows.

The humungous horseshoe-shaped Markthal is another massive visitor attraction adding 100 market stalls, 20 shops and nine restaurants to the downtown experience. The igloo shaped interior flaunts a mural by Dutch digital artist Arno Coenen the size of two football fields.

Pastel pink bus shelters with razor-thin roofs emulating billowing fabric grace the new coach terminus. The Luchtsingel air canal is another world first – a sunshine yellow pedestrian bridge paid for by crowdfunding, its 400 metre trajectory weaves through a building and across roads and railways to connect three areas of the city.

The surge of innovation continues this year with the opening of a river park made from recycled plastic dredged from the water and the planet’s premier floating cheese farm complete with 40 grazing cows. But the big draw this summer will be the world’s first urban surf centre set to open on the Steigersgracht canal in May. Voted for by locals, the city is stumping up €3.6 million to provide surf-sized waves in the middle of a modern metropolis.

A city of two halves divided by the river Nieuwe Maas, much of it built behind dikes, water is never far away. A Spido boat will whisk you on a get-your-bearings tour around historical Veerhaven harbour, the museum ship SS Rotterdam, the Hotel New York (former HQ of the Holland American Line) and the 100-metre tall Euromast for the city’s highest dining experience.

Better still, you don’t have to sacrifice Amsterdam to enjoy it. It’s an easy 27 minute Intercity train ride from the capital to Rotterdam Centraal Station, now boasting its own dramatic revamp. From here, you can get straight to the heart of art with a stroll along the Westersingel Canal Sculpture Route for artworks by Rodin and Henri Laurens.

The Museumpark’s lake and gardens showcase more al fresco artworks and six different museums and galleries where you can see old masters and modernists, De Stijl furniture and, until the end of May, works by Dalí, Magritte and Max Ernst.

For the ultimate in waterfront dining, head to Las Palmas, a portside fish restaurant owned by Dutch celebrity chef Herman den Blijker, who reputedly makes the best bouillabaisse in town. For dizzying views of the Old Harbour, check into the Stayokay Hostal and sleep in one of Dutch architect Piet Blom’s iconic Cube Houses, tilted at a 45-degree angle! Or, if all this water is diluting the experience, try a stiff gin at the National Jenever Museum, a working distillery five minutes out of town by metro.

With its great transport network you could wizz around Rotterdam in a day but it’s worthy of longer, if only to see the world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner, a funky tower that’s improving the city’s air quality sustainably; or the world’s first sustainable animal pod that’s keeping the city’s expat giraffes in solar-heated bliss, and damned sure they wouldn’t swap Rotterdam’s zoo for Amsterdam’s any day of the year.

Words Belinda Beckett